A Conversation with Rich Robinson

By: Dennis Cook

Rich Robinson is currently on a North American tour. He plays tonight, November 8th in Toronto, and tomorrow, November 9th, in Seattle, WA. Find full tour dates here.

Rich Robinson
Rich Robinson has a lot to say as a musician. Even after 20-plus years co-helming The Black Crowes, Robinson keeps offering up fresh facets. To wit, Through A Crooked Sun (released October 11 on Thirty Tigers), his sophomore solo album, which showcases the considerable range he’s developed over the years, bringing his increased vocal prowess to the fore and offering a compositional flair and sumptuous musical feel that’s a fair distance from the Crowes. A bright thread runs through this collection, honest hope that seems hard earned but enduring, as Robinson opens himself up for his most personal songwriting to date.

The core band on Through A Crooked Sun consists of Robinson (lead vocals, guitar), recent Crowes tour percussionist Joe Magistro (whose intuitive touch shines in this more fully exposed setting) and Particle’s Steve Molitz on keyboards with guest turns from Warren Haynes, Larry Campbell, John Medeski and Adam Widoff (Stoney Clove Lane). One standout guest is pianist and vibraphonist Karl Berger, a veteran of Ornette Coleman’s band, who Robinson calls “the coolest guy in the world and a really lovely human being.” It’s a heady mix of players, and the patient, organic mood of many pieces allows one to luxuriate in warm sound and faith seeking themes. The way forward, the path out of chaos and confusion, rides in these grooves, which begin with a snarl and ease into some of the most engaging, delicate work Robinson has ever conjured. It’s a record that could well bring him to the attention of listeners outside the Amorican core audience, an album not that far removed from Iron & Wine, Ray LaMontagne and similar fellow travelers.

We talked with Rich about his new venture, his busy year, touring clubs again, and his new band. Without overstating things, it is the happiest this writer – who has spoken to him many times over the years – has ever found him. For a guy with a reputation for not smiling much onstage, one quickly picked up on a sunnier lilt in his voice right away.

Rich Robinson by Josh Miller
JamBase: One thing a fair number of people may not know about you is how much of a dad you are.

I’ve got kids everywhere, man [laughs]. Four boys.

JamBase: Do you think that’s filtering into what you do as an artist?

I think so. It’s a positive thing about finding a love and moving forward. In my [most recent bio] it talks about the divorce and all that bullshit but [this album] is more about the positive view that comes after that split. And obviously, when you move forward and have babies it adds to your perspective and experiences that can draw from.

There’s a tendency to focus on the fractures and conflicts with you, and this record is so quietly hopeful and thoughtful that it seems funny that people continue to take that tact with you. There’s an intimacy to this record that’s different than anything you’ve done before.

Absolutely! The first [solo] record [2004’s under-appreciated Paper] had all these riffs and I’d written some of the songs during the Crowes, and it all happened suddenly. Then I got John Hogg [lead singer of short-lived Hookah Brown], and everything was frantic and uptight. It felt like this loop kept happening and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. It was an incredible learning experience, and it kind of set me up for this [new album] along with the last five years of touring. Joe and I just went in to make this record and Steve came along. It was a really positive experience and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Joe Magistro
How did the songs for this set come together? It hangs together well as an album.

It’s a piece and was recorded as such. Joe and Steve and I did some demos in January, and three of the songs ended up on the record because we just gelled so well. I had some things and we just went up to Woodstock to see what would happen. We knew we had something with “Standing on the Surface of the Sun” and “Gone Away.” We couldn’t wait to get back in and see what was going on.

”Standing on the Surface of the Sun” has some Pink Floyd level stuff going on.

Joe and I were fucking around with that at sound-checks during the last Crowes tour, and shit sounded good. Someone, maybe Steve or Adam, came out and said, “What was that? It’s good!” We were just messing around, and when we went into the studio in January Steve hadn’t heard anything. He played bass pedals on it, which is really cool. It was all such a positive experience. There was no baggage brought because there’s none to be had.

That has to be savored when you have a break from your day job. Are you enjoying this time off from heavy touring with the Crowes?

Absolutely, though this year has been pretty busy. January we did demos and started making the record. I moved down to Atlanta, then produced this girl for three weeks, and right after that we went to Europe with the Crowes. And in between we had a baby! It’s busy but it’s great.

New Album
Through A Crooked Sun showcases all your facets as a musician, where your singing and production skills come into play in a much bigger way. Your voice is just more exposed here, and it’s clear you’ve grown a lot as a vocalist since the first solo album.

I think I understand more where my voice is and what I can do with it. I sort of put it in a setting instead of trying to make it something it’s not. I’m trying to let it be what it is, and I’ve found a place where I’m more comfortable with that.

Musically, there’s a broad range on this set, opening with a rocker any Crowes fan is likely to dig but then dipping into some incredibly delicate material that wouldn’t fly in the big machine that is the Black Crowes.

Exactly. Joe and I have a conversation, musically, where he knows where I’m gonna go and I know where he’s going to go. For example, on “All Along The Way” Joe played this beat and I jumped in with this Jimmy Page/”Tangerine” part that was really simple, really cool.

You’re on the road now. Who’s touring with you?

Steve Molitz
It’s me, Joe, Steve and Brian Allen, who plays bass.

How does it differ for you being the only guitarist onstage?

It’s cool because Steve will cover a lot of what I do rhythmically so I can solo. It makes you be more lean in what you do because you don’t have two guitar players and background vocals and all that. We have the four of us and we kind of have to make it work. It makes you a little more disciplined.

What’s the mix of material you’re playing on this tour?

We’ll concentrate on the new album, and there’s about five or six songs off Paper that we do, plus songs from an EP that came out as a bonus with Through A Crooked Sun. I wanted to do something extra and I went into the studio with Joe and set up one mic in front of his drums and in front of me with an amp. We recorded these four blues songs, and it flowed and just came together.

As with a lot of your work, even when I love the studio versions, I’m excited to hear what happens to these new songs in the live setting.

Rich Robinson by Susan J. Weiand
The discipline of honing everything in and editing things gets better every night. We started pretty much cold. Some of the songs were captured in one take in the studio, and some we’d never played together before. We went for rehearsal in Woodstock for four days, but I’d never sung any of these songs before we went into the studio, so I had to learn to sing them and play the parts at the same time. So, there was a lot of interesting challenges. The first show was good, the second show was better, and every night we get more cohesive.

Do you like going back into clubs and having a more intimate experience with audiences?

It’s definitely interesting, and right now it’s Crowes fans coming. It’s really cool to see people I’ve seen for years standing in the front rows coming out and being really supportive. That’s a gift. Some of these people have been with me my whole adult life. To see these people getting into these shows and liking what we do is a true gift and humbling. It’s really an amazing thing to see, and a lot of time it’s easier to interact with people and hear their stories in the clubs. It’s been awesome and it feels great.

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[Published on: 11/8/11]

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